Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers’ novel “The Riddle of the Sands – A Record of Secret Service” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1903. It has influenced a great many thriller writers since, a god-parent, if not quite the father, of the modern thriller novel.

It is very much a creation of its time – Edwardian England, when the British Establishment was becoming increasingly concerned about the way Germany – still a relatively new nation – was equipping itself for war. It was also a period when new techniques of espionage were being defined, though, thankfully, before anything approaching modern technology had taken over.

Anyone who has undertaken any sort of covert observational work would attest to the accuracy of the pace of the spying and the scale of the operation. There are no master-villains, just ordinary Germans, something like Carruthers and Davies themselves, carrying out their own strategy at a time of increasing international paranoia and the race to an inevitable war. There is a baddie, though I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it by going into any more details. All I will say is that he is both a towering and tragic individual, torn by conflicting loyalties, not really a villain at all in the traditional sense. There’s a girl too, though fortunately the romantic elements of the novel are understated.

This is very much a feet-on-the-ground spy story, perhaps I should say sea-boots for this is one of the great novels about sailing.

The plot line is relatively simple, and I won’t give too much away. The story is told by Carruthers – a name to conjure with, a kind of byword for an Establishment figure in the century or more since – who is invited to join his old friend Arthur Davies who is sailing his yacht amidst the Friesian Islands, off the German coast in the North Sea or, as it was popularly known at the time, the German Ocean.

Carruthers takes up the invitation expecting his friend to have a comfortable yacht in the luxurious sense, complete with servants. Instead the Dulcibella is barely big enough to cope with the two of them. Carruthers works for the British government – the Foreign Office – but is on leave. A lot of the book is taken up with the details of this sailing voyage (the book comes complete with maps and charts – if you had a yacht of your own you could follow their adventures and route with little difficulty.)

This is not a page-turning thriller in the modern sense. There is as much about their voyaging as there is about espionage, those gripping scenes being scattered throughout the book. But this does give the yarn an air of reality. And you do keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens as the two young men are drawn into a German plot to invade England.

This is espionage as it really was, and perhaps still is. The book is presented with an introduction and epilogue by Childers, suggesting that Carruthers has related the account almost as a kind of report to him – a literary device, admittedly, but it is worth remembering that Childers worked at Westminster for much of his career, and also in Intelligence. Writing for him was very much a side-line. “The Riddle of the Sands” is his only novel.

It was published to great success, soon achieving both a popularity and also a great fear in the public mind; waking up the political establishment and the people of Britain to the possibility of a war with Germany. It’s said that, before the novel was published, the east coast of England was little prepared for defence and all the great naval bases were elsewhere. The British had always assumed that the traditional enemy would always be France. Few novels and thrillers have led to a rethink of defensive strategy – “The Riddle of the Sands” is probably the only one to make a significant tactical difference.

There is an element of verifiable truth in the novel. Childers had undertaken a similar voyage to his two heroes just a few years earlier. The details of the islands, the movements of the tides, the hazards of the sea fogs are taken from life, and conjured up on the pages. Childers is very good at evoking a sense of place, in much the way his admirer John Buchan did a few years later. You can smell the salt water and the mud of the islands even as you read. The sights and sounds of the journey are brought to life by the skill of the author.

Interestingly the plot inspired two Royal Navy officers, both amateur yachtsmen, to undertake a similar voyage in 1910, where they genuinely did spy on German naval defences.

Erskine Childers’ book is not just a thriller but a considerable work of literature. It might not race along like a Robert Ludlum, but it really does give a flavour of spying at the time.

Erskine Childers’ end was tragic. He sympathised with the cause of Irish Nationalism, joining the Nationalists when the Free State was established. In the Civil War that followed the schism between the Nationalists and the proponents of the Free State, he was arrested and executed by firing squad. Today we might call it judicial murder. A tragic end for a brave and far-seeing individual.

“The Riddle of the Sands” has been filmed, in a British version with Simon MacCorkindale, Michael York, Alan Badel and Jenny Agutter – a beautifully photographed film, made on location, which really captures the essence of what Childers wrote. There is, interestingly enough, a German version, though I’ve never managed to see it.

But even well over a century after its publication “The Riddle of the Sands” is well worth seeking out. And unlike some of the thrillers published today, I think it’s safe to say that this is very much how Edwardian espionage must really have been. Childers’ novel not only inspired a generation of spy novelists but almost certainly a whole generation of real-life spies.

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Murder at the Seaside

Murder at the seaside has long been a popular sub-genre of English crime fiction. Within this framework the setting and topography of Mayhem-on-sea can vary widely. The 1930s Brighton written about by Patrick Hamilton is very different from Raymond Flynn’s North Sea Eddathorpe of the 1990s or the Edwardian resort of Andrew Martin’s The Blackpool High-Flyer.

Seaside resorts provide a rich source of atmosphere for the writer. A contained world that comes complete with its own architecture and language. Grand Hotels along the esplanade, seedy Sea View boarding houses, the pier and pavilion, boating lake and prom. Locations from cliff-tops, Winter Gardens, crowded arcades or empty beaches offer endless possibilities for the finding of bodies.

Sending your characters to the seaside is a useful device whereby they join groups of strangers and meet with unexpected situations. Even Jane Austen wrote a mystery sub-plot within Emma – complete with clues – about what Jane Fairfax got up to in Weymouth.

If you fancy reading a seaside detective novel while it’s still summer, here are a few of our favourites.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase is the second of her novels to feature the crime novelist Harriet Vane. Harriet is taking a solitary walking tour along the south-west coast when she finds a body that is later washed out to sea before officialdom can arrive. Under some suspicion, she stays at the nearby resort and Lord Peter Wimsey soon follows to help her discover whodunit.

Published in 1932, Have His Carcase has been criticised for including racial stereotypes we wouldn’t countenance now but it is very much of its time and should be enjoyed as such. The novel gives a fascinating impression of the well-heeled at the seaside between the wars. An age when the best hotels had their own orchestra and exhibition dancers; tennis coaches rubbed shoulders with penniless companions, elderly residents and card-sharps. (The famous Miss Marple novel, The Body In The Library covers a similar setting equally well.)

We can’t leave out the wonderful Death Walks At Eastrepps, published a year earlier. Eastrepps is loosely based on the charming Norfolk resort of Cromer. For more detail see blogs passim.

Agatha Christie’s N Or M? features her engaging sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and sits somewhere between detective novel and spy thriller. Set in the spring of 1940 in a sleepy south coast resort. The Beresfords, now middle-aged, are staying in a boarding house and secretly searching for a German agent, a Fifth Columnist among the seemingly ordinary residents.

This is a rattling good yarn which gives an interesting insight into the times. We decided not to watch the BBC drama currently running as they’ve updated the setting to the early 50s and swopped Nazis for the Cold War – destroying the whole premise of the story.

The plot twists and turns with suspicion shifting to one character after another. It’s hard to think of anyone as good as Christie at making an everyday scene suddenly become sinister. (By one of life’s strange coincidences Agatha Christie named one of her characters Bletchley and made a reference to code-breaking. At the time of publishing in 1941 Bletchley Park, Britain’s legendary code and cypher establishment was of course top secret. Questions were asked!)

Eileen Dewhurst’s Phyllida Moon series first appeared in the 1990s and has an intriguing premise. Phyllida Moon is a gifted repertory actress who moves to the quiet south-coast town of Seaminster. There she begins a new life working for a private detective agency and sleuthing in character. This may sound as though it requires a suspension of disbelief but Eileen Dewhurst writes so well that this is effortless to do. Her plots are very original and raise interesting questions about the nature of identity. She is very good on the psychology of her characters and setting.

Curtain Fall by the same author features another series character, Inspector Neil Carter and is also set in a resort. If you want to know what seaside summers were like in the 70s, in the last days of regular end-of-the-pier shows – this is a superb read. Terrific atmosphere combined with a first class plot.

You might like to try our own seaside mystery, A Seaside Mourning:Seaside-Mourning-Ad-Cover.d

An atmospheric Victorian murder mystery set in 1873.

The small seaside resort of Seaborough, half-forgotten on the edge of Devonshire, seems an unlikely setting for murder.
When a leading resident dies, the cause of death is uncertain. Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve are sent from Exeter to determine whether the elderly spinster was poisoned.

As mourning rituals are observed and the town prepares for an elaborate funeral, no one seems to have a motive for ending a blameless life.

Under increasing pressure, Inspector Josiah Abbs must search the past for answers as he tries to catch a killer.

When the autumn leaves fall and secrets are laid bare, revealing a murderer may prove dangerous…
Now out in paperback and eBook.

Please click on the link to see more:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/ebooks/dp/B00JEHLABI/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1440065340&sr=1-2&keywords=john+bainbridge

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John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages”

In previous blogs I’ve looked at two earlier Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. But “The Three Hostages” is very different from “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Mr Standfast”. It is more contained than the Hannay spy novels set during the Great War. Here the conspiracy is a criminal plot. And there is one prime villain, a member of the British Establishment. A gentleman about town, a member of Parliament, no less, a popular character on the London scene.

Today we tend to view politicians with considerable suspicion, supposing, fairly or unfairly, that most of them are lining their own pockets at our expense. Only in it for what they can get. Reading “The Three Hostages” you have to remember that Buchan lived and wrote during a more reverential age, when politicians were viewed as genuine public servants – there, even if you disagreed with their political stance, to contribute to what was perceived as the greater good. The idea of making such a man a sinister villain might have been a tad more shocking for the readers of 1924 than it is now.

This is very much a novel about the breakdown of society and order after the chaos of a world war. Quite topical when you think of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the reality of the 1920s.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying right here and now that the villain of the piece is one Dominick Medina. Buchan makes this obvious from almost the start of the novel.

The basic premise is simple. In order to safeguard his criminal conspiracy, Medina has kidnapped three hostages with Establishment connections. Before Scotland Yard can close the net on the criminals Richard Hannay has to find and rescue them all.

As with all good thrillers, there is a tight deadline and Hannay only has a piece of doggerel verse to work from as a clue.

Hannay, snatched from the peace and quiet of life as a country gentleman, is also put at a considerable disadvantage by falling victim to the sinister hypnotic powers of Medina himself. The scenes where Hannay becomes – or so Medina believes – his stooge are some of the most powerful that Buchan ever wrote. Buchan himself once expressed the great fear of what it must be like to find your mind being taken over, the horror of losing self-control. It might all sound far-fetched, but remember how characters like Hitler manipulated an entire nation, in a similar bout of near mass-hypnosis.

Unlike the earlier novels, “The Three Hostages” is rooted very firmly in London, though there are episodes in the Cotswolds, Norway and Scotland. In an early Buchan novel “The Power House”, which is rather unfairly neglected these days, we saw how cleverly Buchan portrayed the dangers of London, the sinister quarters of the city which lurk just below respectability.

Here we have a similar portrayal of menace. Buchan is as good at evoking shadier areas of Fitzrovia and Gospel Oak as he is the wild landscapes of the Highlands. There is a sense of claustrophobia in this novel – a feeling that the outdoorsman Hannay is also having to fight his surroundings as much as the chief villain.

Buchan also poses an interesting dramatic situation for his hero. How can Hannay have the freedom to search for the hostages and investigate Medina when he is at the beck and call of Medina for most of the time.

The author uses other familiar characters from the earlier novels to give Hannay moral and practical support. We have here the hero of “Greenmantle” Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), Hannay’s wife Mary, the airman Archie Roylance. Buchan reprieves the character of the German Herr Gaudian, from “Greenmantle”, an ally now in Hannay’s quest, rather than an enemy. A sympathetic German in English fiction in 1924 shows Buchan’s horror at what had just happened in the trenches. It was not a very fashionable viewpoint in a Europe where vengeance was the greater motivation.

As matters are revealed there is a dramatic conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the finest duel in thrillerdom. A chase and gunfight on a bleak mountainside.

Now as it happens I’ve just written a similar battle myself, where two men fight it out in the Scottish mountains, in my own thriller “Balmoral Kill”.

And I found it incredibly hard to do. I stand in awe of John Buchan who raised the bar so high that any attempt to do anything similar is daunting to say the least.

The only other writer I know who comes anywhere close is Geoffrey Household in his thriller “The Watcher in the Shadows” (see blogs passim), though his location is a meadow in the Cotswolds.

Buchan was so good at these sort of scenes because of his vast experience of mountain climbing in the Highlands, the long days out in all weathers. Buchan may not have had to fight personal tournaments in such places, but he knew the locations backwards. And it shows. I climb mountains myself and I’ve undertaken long walks in Scotland and elsewhere. I can vouch for Buchan’s veracity. No writer of Scottish fiction gets the spirit of place quite so right as John Buchan.

And it’s interesting that, despite Hannay being in this wider landscape rather than the disturbing back-rooms of Medina’s London, the sense of menace – of danger creeping ever near – never goes away. Buchan makes a mountain range seem almost as ominously claustrophobic as the shadowed streets of inner London.

And as Hannay is attacked mentally as well as physically we find ourselves previewing many of the thriller plots that came along later in the twentieth-century. Where the mind and spirit are subdued every bit as much as the body. Where the survival of the individual’s moral conscience is often very much in doubt.

“The Three Hostages” is probably the best constructed of all the Hannay novels – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, for the Hannay novels in total are a hallmark of excellence in the world of thriller writing.

But here Buchan had obviously considered the plot and the issues within for a long time before he took up his pen. He produced, in my view, not only a classic thriller but one of the finest novels of the 1920s. A state of the nation piece, which makes Buchan’s homeland, coming as it was away from the traumas of the Great War, a very uncomfortable place indeed.

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L. C. Tyler’s Crooked Herring

Now and again you stumble on a writer you like so much, you wonder where they’ve been all your life. This happened to me recently when I found L. C. Tyler’s Crooked Herring in a library. Mr Tyler has been completely off my radar despite a lifetime of lurking in bookshops and libraries, especially in the crime section.

It turns out he’s the Chair of the Crime Writers Association. All I can say is his publishers should be promoting his work everywhere. It’s a delight.

Crooked Herring is the latest in a series featuring Ethelred Tressider, a middle-aged, mid-list crime novelist and Elsie Thirkettle, his sidekick and literary agent. They are both wonderful creations, funny, vividly brought to life and very believable.

Ethelred is comfortably old fogeyish, slightly eccentric and out of step with modern British life. In the time-honoured tradition of sidekicks, Elsie is very different. Pithy, unscrupulous and addicted to chocolate, she leaps off the page.

Together they make a very entertaining duo. In Crooked Herring, Ethelred reluctantly finds himself investigating a possible murder without a body. A baffling puzzle that gradually turns sinister and leaves him needing Elsie’s rather unpredictable assistance.

I love L. C Tyler’s writing style. Ethelred and Elsie exchange witty one-liners in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Norah Charles (The Thin Man films); Francis Durbridge’s Steve and Paul Temple and Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Though these two are no cosy married couple. They are original and more akin to the warring friends of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (one of my favourite films).

Although the setting is contemporary with talk of iPhones and amazon reviews, there’s a delicious whiff of the Golden Age about this series. They have lovely 1930s Batsford illustration-style covers and great titles. Crooked Herring is sparkling, stylish, quirky and very clever. It sweeps the reader on a glorious romp with the perfect balance of tongue-in-cheek humour and a devious plot.

This novel was particularly enjoyable for me with its Sussex setting of Chichester and the surrounding countryside, an area I love. Chichester is a charming place with a largely Georgian centre and an important Roman past. It is a city only by virtue of its splendid Norman cathedral, still retaining the flavour of a country market town; bookshops, flowers, tea-rooms and quiet corners.

To the south lie the marshes and creeks around Chichester Harbour, an area surprisingly lonely for southern England. Northwards are villages of flint and thatch among chalk downlands, within the U.K’s newest National Park. L. C. Tyler has lived in the area and catches its atmosphere – something like a Margery Allingham setting – very well.

I’ve since bought my own copy of Crooked Herring and the first two in the series. Can’t wait to see how it all began.
If like me, you’ve missed out on L. C. Tyler, do seek out his work. You’ll be in for a treat.

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